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The real reason Bernie Sanders’s favorite primary candidate aims to outst the head of the DNC

'The economy is stuck in neutral. People are frustrated.'


Aaron Sankin


Posted on Jun 17, 2016   Updated on May 26, 2021, 2:30 pm CDT

For a political neophyte running for a seat in the House of Representatives, Tim Canova has received an unusual amount of national attention, with profiles in the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Intercept. When Canova was temporarily denied access to the Democratic Party’s centralized database of voter information, it sparked a massive uproar.   

This type of coverage would be surprising for most congressional primary races, but Canova’s effort to unseat Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, a congresswoman from Florida’s 23rd district, has, in many ways, become emblematic of the fault line running down the center of the Democratic party—the moderate establishment on one side, the more radical progressive insurgents on the other.

Canova, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University, is the only candidate in the 2016 election cycle to receive the endorsement of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, which led to a million-dollar fundraising surge. Sanders has called for a slate of reforms regarding how the Democratic party operates—including ousting Wasserman-Schultz. His sentiment, shared by many in his legion of supporters, is that Wasserman-Schultz has guided the party organization to take actions like scheduling primary debates on weekend evenings when viewership would be lower, as a way to insulate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and presumptive Democratic nominee from any serious challenge.

While Canova agrees with this criticism—and it has certainly animated much of the national attention his campaign has received—his motivation for taking on Wasserman-Schultz in the first place runs much deeper. 

Canova, who has studied and taught trade policy for decades, was inspired to enter the race due to Wasserman-Schultz’s position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a controversial trade deal between a dozen Pacific Rim nations signed earlier this year, but yet to be adopted in the U.S.

Canova is a vociferous critic of agreements like the TPP and, in a conversation with the Daily Dot, he insisted if the government wants to best serve the American people, it needs to seriously rethink how it approaches trade deals. That skepticism, and its rise on the political right, he argues, is a big silver lining to the rise of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Daily Dot: As the Bernie Sanders campaign has wound down, he’s been making demands of the Democratic Party. One of those, replacing Congresswoman Wasserman-Schultz as DNC chair, is particularly relevant to you. A lot of your criticism of your opponent has been with how she’s guided the party. Why do you think her tenure at the top of the DNC has been problematic?

Tim Canova: I think she’s been a divisive leader. I started to call for her to step down at the DNC when it was reported that she had overturned President Obama’s 2008 decision to ban corporate lobbyists’ donations to the DNC. Not long after that was reported, it was also disclosed that something like 60 or 70 of Democratic superdelegates are corporate lobbyists. This is a terrible trend for the party—turning its back on ordinary folks and empowering corporate interests. That was the initial basis for my calling for her to step down.

You’ve said that Wasserman-Schultz’s position on trade policy is what brought you into this race. How did that happen?

I got involved with the Citizens Trade Campaign in South Florida. Citizens Trade Campaign is a grassroots group lobbying the entire Florida congressional delegation against fast-tracking the TPP. The group got to meet with a number of members of Congress or key staffers with competencies in trade. With Wasserman-Scultz’s office, we got neither. We felt we got the brush-off. We ended up staging a couple of protests outside of her district office. At the end of the day, she voted to fast-track the agreement. That was frustrating.

In the course of lobbying her office, we discovered she had taken about $330,000 from corporate interests pushing the TPP in the last election cycle alone. We could see that it was a pattern. Over the course of her career she’s taken millions of dollars from the biggest corporations and Wall Street banks and, on issue after issue, she’s been voting for their interests.

Let’s talk about the TPP for a minute. Can you outline some of your issues with the agreement?

For openers, it would outsource a lot of American jobs. The Citizens Trade Campaign, I think, estimated there would be a couple million American jobs that would be outsourced. The agreement would raise consumer prescription drug prices. That’s because it was negotiated by big pharmaceutical companies and would impede the introduction of generic drugs. 

I have concerns with the investor-state dispute settlement provisions as well. I joined in a letter to Congress with about 100 other law professors about those provisions, which would allow foreign corporations to challenge U.S. laws on the grounds they infringe on anticipated profits.

For years, conservative jurists and legal scholars have been trying to expand the doctrine of eminent domain to embrace the concept of regulatory taking. Under this theory, when the government has regulations that could be considered tantamount to expropriation, it requires just compensation by the federal government under the Fifth Amendment and by state governments under the Fourteenth Amendment. The Fifth Amendment allows the government to take private property for public presuppose as long as it pays just compensation. You have these conservative legal scholars saying that, in addition to directly taking property, if the federal government just regulates, that would be a regulatory taking. They were pushing this theory in the courts, but the courts didn’t buy it. Some years later, they’ve got these investor-state provisions in the TPP, and it’s an end-run around the Constitution. It would essentially enshrine the same regulatory takings doctrine by trade law.

It’s similar to the provisions under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Under NAFTA, just a few months ago, energy giant TransCanada announced it was going to bring a lawsuit against the U.S. for $15 billion in anticipated lost profits as a result of President Obama’s decision not to move forward with the Keystone XL pipeline because of concerns about climate change. These lawsuits are not brought in U.S. court; they’re brought before arbitration panels. The judges on these arbitration panels are basically corporate trade lawyers. They are the same lawyers who often have negotiated these provisions in the first place and who regularly represent these companies in these kinds of suits.

One of the large breaks Donald Trump is making with much of the Republican orthodoxy going back generations is a criticism of these types of trade deals. This is something Trump has been talking about for decades. Why do you think this skepticism of how the U.S. conducts trade and structures deals with other countries is resonating with a large subset of the conservative base that typically, until recently, seemed to lean more reflexively pro-business?

I’m encouraged that it’s resonating with rank-and-file Republicans. It’s been resonating on the left for a long time. You look at November of 1999 with the World Trade Organization’s ministerial meeting in Seattle—50,000 people were on the streets protesting. The National Guard had to be called out. They essentially had to declare martial law in Seattle. That was the beginning of widespread protests all over the U.S. and Europe and elsewhere against the WTO, the IMF, the G8. The only thing that slowed that movement down, that almost shut it down, was September 11th and all the security concerns about large protests in the streets. Then it came back with the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Progressives in this country have been very critical of these trade agreements for a long time and so have some people on the right. It’s not just Donald Trump. Obviously, Bernie Sanders has been critical of the TPP to the point where Hillary Clinton finally came around against it. So I do think what maybe was considered outside of the mainstream a while has changed pretty quickly.

What’s contributed to that change in public opinion more than anything else, I think, are the dire straits that most people live in. It’s one thing to have high unemployment and high hidden unemployment, which we have. But it’s high, hidden, and long-term unemployment now. This has been going on for eight years since the financial collapse. The economy is stuck in neutral. People are frustrated. They see the outsourcing of jobs has not been ending. I’m not surprised politically these deals are becoming increasingly unpopular.

Do you see a substantive difference between the ways in which these deals are criticized from the left versus how they are being critiqued from the right?

On the right, I hear an awful lot of invective by Trump against these trade deals. I didn’t hear many other—or even really any other—Republican presidential candidates railing against the TPP. Trump was the only one, and yet it resonated. Trump vanquished a field of 17 candidates. He criticizes these agreements. He says that our leaders are stupid for these agreements. His solution is that he’s a good negotiator and that he will negotiate better trade deals. I don’t know beyond those generalities what else he brings to the discussion.

I look at the Democrats, and the critique is that it helps big corporate interests and hurts working folks, whether it’s the outsourcing of jobs directly or its the currency manipulation. In trade law, the U.S. Treasury has to essentially review the currency policies of all of our trading partners. They have for years just rubber-stamped China and Japan and others—countries that clearly manipulate their currency. They clearly undervalue their currency, but we don’t do anything about it. There’s this critique that its a race to the bottom in environmental, and labor, and health, and safety standards.

To that point, when President Obama was out there trying to sell the public and Congress on the TPP, he insisted it was the most progressive trade deal in history. It’s pretty clear you would contest that, but what do you think a truly progressive trade would look like?

Until 1994, when NAFTA went into effect, was there ever this type of free trade agreement between a first world country and a third world country? I don’t think so. The European Union created a common market, but they were all first world countries to begin with. There weren’t huge disparities in wage rates. There were some—certainly northern Europe had stronger wages than southern Europe, but they also had regional development policies that helped to funnel funds for infrastructure, training, and investment to southern Europe.

I look back to a generation ago, and the U.S. would not have traded freely with a communist country like the Soviet Union. There was never any talk of letting the Soviet Union in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which was the forerunner of the World Trade Organization. In fact, there were trade sanctions against he Soviet Union due to their human rights violations. With China, that’s not ever really been much of a concern. Just a few years after the bloodshed at Tiananmen Square, all is forgiven and we can trade freely with a communist country. I single out a communist country because of its human rights standards, of its labor law, and because they don’t have independent trade unions. Why would we want to compete with this? How does that raise us?

In terms of China, what’s the trade policy solution here? Are we talking tariffs? Are we looking to bilateral trade agreements that put limits on what can be imported or exported? In an ideal world, what sort of policies do you see doing the most good?

In an ideal world, we would have free trade with countries that have common political systems, common protections for the environment, for health and safety, for workers—as free as possible. Countries that play by fair rules and don’t manipulate their currencies. That would be the ideal. Counties left out of the framework would have an incentive to liberalize and reform.

If, at the top of the ticket, the 2016 election cycle is a realignment election that sees the base of the GOP following Trump and becoming a lot more skeptical on trade, do you see the Democratic Party polarizing in the other direction to attract that pro-free trade that demographic that’s becoming more out-of-step with the GOP?

I think the Democrats already have. The Democrats have been as pro-free trade, or more so, than the Republicans for many years. There’s skepticism that’s happening among the rank-and-file Republicans who vote for Donald Trump, and that skepticism is growing among a lot of Democrats who voted for Sanders and even support Clinton—there’s a reason Clinton came around against the TPP: It’s no longer popular.

This is why these agreements can only be adopted by these elites in both parties if they have these rigged process. Elizabeth Warren has talked about this in relation to the TPP. If you have a rigged process, you’ll get a rigged outcome. And they’ve rigged the process. Members of Congress are not allowed to be involved in the negotiations in any way. A member of Congress that wants to see the negotiating draft can see it alone in some committee room without an aid, without a piece of paper or pen, without a cellphone. Just about under armed guard. But 300 to 600 corporate lobbyists can negotiate it. And then, when it’s finally been agreed to, we’ll have a fast-track, an up-or-down vote without any possibility of amendments. 

This is not an open, democratic process. If they had an open, democratic process, it wouldn’t stand of chance of passing.

Correction: A transcription error on the part of the author misidentified the constitutional amendment under which just compensation is required. 

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*First Published: Jun 17, 2016, 10:52 am CDT